1. As Foreign Minister, I have personally seen how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped international diplomacy, whose practices and rituals are centuries-old, more than anything we have seen since World War 2.
2. The global pandemic has seen the world simultaneously become smaller and bigger : people are confined to our homes to keep others safe, but we are also reliant on the global community to find a cure, develop policy measures for public good, and keep supply chains running as best it can.
3. One of the deepest tragedies is that the pandemic should have united the world in our common grief, rather than dividing us further and deeper along existing fault lines. Wealthy nations still dominate, while the rest of the world merely scrapes by, even in matters of public good like equitable vaccine access.
4. Some developments on this front have been promising, with the G7 having recently pledged one billion vaccines to be distributed to the rest of the world. This is in line with Malaysia’s consistent stand that the vaccine must promote international collaboration rather than nationalistic competition. After all, the virus does not see colour nor creed; and no one is safe until everyone is safe.
5. This global pandemic has shown us that the world and its nations are truly interdependent: we cannot think about ‘number one’, as the adage goes, because our fortunes are often inextricably linked to that of our neighbours and allies.
6. This brings me to my first matter, which are developments in Myanmar. While we appreciate the international recognition of ASEAN’s role and initiatives on this front to lower tensions, stop the violence and avoid a further escalation of the situation on the ground, we in ASEAN must be realistic with our goals.
7. Two months ago, ASEAN Leaders’ met in Jakarta for a historic meeting – gathering behind a unified resolve to address the issue for the sake of regional peace and security. As an outcome, the Leaders’ reached an important breakthrough with the ‘Five-Point Consensus’.
8. The consensus is a broad parameter for ASEAN to engage and assist Myanmar towards the return to normalcy – reaffirming our strong support for a democratic transition, peace process, and inclusive economic development in the country. However, we must admit that progress from the ‘Five Point Consensus’ has been painfully slow, and the international community is awaiting ASEAN’s further action on this front that would translate into concrete improvements in Myanmar.
9. The second matter which the Ministry and I have spent time working on is the grief and tragedy stemming from battles over land and contesting nationalisms. I am obviously referring to the senseless bloodshed and loss of life in occupied Palestine.
10. We have seen what has happened on the ground – Palestinian civilians dying, children and women attacked, homes and buildings destroyed completely. What has happened in Gaza, and has happened before in the West Bank, is beyond description. These are crimes against humanity, and the Israeli Zionist regime is to be blamed.
11. While the ceasefire represents a crucial step forward to prevent further loss of lives and destruction, we must come to grips with the reality that Palestinians are still oppressed; mass arrests are still conducted; illegal settlements are being expanded.
12. The Palestinian cause has been ongoing for over 70 years, yet it is sad to see Palestine receive ‘seasonal’ attention only when tensions flare and the international community takes notice. The Palestine issue is not a trend, and we must never stop talking about it.
13. This is why Malaysia along with our partners regionally and globally are now focused on providing humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people and the reconstruction of Gaza.
14. It gives me pride to see Malaysians from all walks of life come together to support the Palestinian cause, be it through fund-raising, spreading awareness or merely lending support. We hear the public’s concern on whether funds donated actually reach the right people in Palestine, which is why the Ministry is collaborating with the Malaysia Red Crescent Society on our fundraising efforts. Funds raised will be directly channelled to the Palestine Red Crescent Society to assist ground efforts in purchasing medical equipment that are in dire need.
15. On the third matter – I would like to address the South China Sea. My tenure as Foreign Minister has also seen me lean on my past experience as Defence Minister – specifically on matters to do with the South China Sea dispute, hardly a new issue for me and my team. But, approaching this issue now requires a different approach compared to my previous portfolio.
16. I wish to underline that Malaysia has always been consistent on matters relating to the South China Sea – it must be resolved peacefully and constructively, in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including UNCLOS 1982.
17. While many view this issue purely based on lines and dots that intersect and diverge on a map – in the world of international relations, all elements need to be also analysed through a geopolitical lens – taking into account power, geography, and diversity. It must be managed in a peaceful and rational manner, through dialogue and consultations, utilising the appropriate fora and diplomatic channels.
18. Management of any possible dispute requires careful diplomacy among those leading the foreign and security establishments of the relevant states. Geopolitical balance in our region, especially between the United States and China, is dynamic, and no country remains unaffected. It would be foolish if one were to behave short-sightedly, not bothering to weigh the complexities and long-term dynamics of foreign relations. And that is why I have spent a lot of time, energy and exercised patience in my efforts to cultivate relations with some of my foreign counterparts. In the world of diplomacy, issues like this privilege patience over haste, deliberation over actions.
19. Even so, there is a degree of wisdom behind resisting the urge to be too precipitant. There is a saying, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
20. In a world where we are all interdependent – no country is truly an island – we need to bring the resources and comparative advantages of multiple nations together to resolve complex problems. The only real truism is that nations need each other to achieve substantive, enduring results that benefit not just one country, but the global population. And that is why we have put a lot of emphasis on working with international partners, even while the pandemic tends to draw attentions towards what happens within borders rather than outside of it.
21. It is my fervent hope that the pandemic will then result not in more isolationist national philosophies and individualistic approaches to health and public good, but rather an equitable global approach centred on unity and trust.
22. As I come to the end of my quarantine, I will now be reviving my engagements internationally – the Ministry and I are already working with our foreign counterparts to re-schedule my postponed trips. With this article, if the Malaysian public agree with the points I have raised – I will proudly bring Malaysia’s position and agenda to the world through my face-to-face engagements which is after all the basis of my duties as Foreign Minister. We must acknowledge that international relations are ultimately about relations between people.
23. In navigating these difficult times, I hope my musings have provided some form of reflection or thought to us all. Rest assured, my aims were purely positive, with the intention to constructively propose suggestions rather than intervene in existing developments. All we have is hope, and I believe this is the most powerful tool we have to help carry us through. As Desmond Tutu rightly said - “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”.
18 June 2021